The track record of defending national champions isn't very good lately, is it? Last year Duke sailed into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, only to lose in the Sweet 16 to Arizona. In 2010 North Carolina missed the tournament entirely. In 2009 Kansas lost in the Sweet 16 to Michigan State. And in 2008 Florida went to the NIT. You have to go all the way back to 2007, the year Billy Donovan and the Gators won their second consecutive national title, to find a defending national champion that got past the Sweet 16.
Such ancient history bears repeating here because Connecticut at the moment certainly looks poised to continue this tradition. If anything reaching the Sweet 16 might be a stretch. Ranked a lofty No. 4 nationally in the preseason, Jim Calhoun's team fell out of the top 25 entirely this week after losing three straight games. UConn is 4-4 in the Big East, 14-6 overall, and their chances of simply making the NCAA tournament are now a matter of speculation.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Last August when 6-10 all-everything recruit Andre Drummond announced he was foregoing a final year of prep school to enroll at Connecticut, the consensus was more or less unanimous: with Drummond in the fold and Jeremy Lamb returning for his sophomore season, the Huskies were a legitimate threat to defend their championship. Instead we've arrived at February to find Calhoun's team looking up at South Florida (!) in the Big East standings
What in the world happened?
Strange but true: this defense is only average
Throughout Calhoun's long and storied tenure at Connecticut, his program's been defined by its outstanding defense. Big men come and big men go, but there are always big men in residence at UConn, and they always make life miserable for opponents in the paint. And as it happens, in this one respect, this year is no different. Once again the Huskies are No. 1 in the Big East in interior defense, holding conference opponents to 40 percent shooting inside the arc. Drummond has posted an excellent block rate (good for No. 3 in the Big East, behind Syracuse's Fab Melo and Louisville's Gorgui Dieng), and he's done so while drawing a commendably small number of fouls (another UConn tradition). So far, so good.
But defense consists of more than simply denying the paint to opponents. For proof look no further than the bottom line: Connecticut has allowed Big East opponents to score 1.02 points per possession this season. That's a respectable enough figure -- there'd be dancing in the streets of Philadelphia if Villanova could even approach such a number -- but "respectable" doesn't cut it when it comes to defense in Storrs. No fewer than eight Big East defenses have outperformed that number, and until the Huskies can improve on that side of the ball it's difficult to envision them living up to the expectations placed on them in the preseason.
The problem is turnovers -- in more ways than one
This week I noted that in an imaginary world without turnovers -- both for you and your opponent -- Connecticut would be the best team in the Big East. The Huskies are operating at a severe disadvantage relative to opponents, in that they just don't get as many chances to score. Fewer turnovers on offense would help, certainly (UConn's given the ball away on 21 percent of their possessions in conference play), but the real issue here is on D.
Calhoun's teams have never forced opponents into a lot of turnovers, preferring instead to focus on defending the paint and denying open looks. Three national championship banners are all the proof I require that such an approach can work rather well, but two things have changed this year. Even by UConn standards, the number of turnovers that opponents are committing is exceptionally small: Big East foes have given the ball to the Huskies on just 15 percent of their possessions this season. Second, Connecticut's defense on each turnover-less or "effective" possession is very good -- second in the league to Notre Dame's -- but it's not as good as what we've seen from past Connecticut teams. Put those two factors together and the net result is average defense. In fact we haven't seen a UConn defense this mediocre since 2008, when the Huskies went to the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed and lost in OT in the round of 64 to San Diego.
Still, why can't UConn turn things around like they did last year?
Perhaps this is all a little too pessimistic. After all, Lamb is having a superb if rather under-appreciated season, and didn't this same team finish 9-9 in the Big East last year before cutting down the nets in Houston? All true enough. Last year's Connecticut found its groove in the Big East tournament, when the Huskies became much more aggressive on offense. Specifically Kemba Walker started attacking the paint with abandon and getting to the line with regularity. Walker's assertiveness, Lamb's accuracy, and, not least, some excellent offensive rebounding from Alex Oriakhi propelled Connecticut all the way to the Final Four. Then, once they were in Houston, the Huskies proceeded to play 80 minutes of punishing defense en route to a national championship. It wasn't that long ago.
Certainly Calhoun is searching for a similar turnaround this season. In fact just within the past couple days he's declared his intention to shake up not only his lineup but also his team's style. "We have to push the pace," Calhoun said this week. "We can't win at the pace we've been playing." The Huskies have indeed been going slow, averaging just 61 possessions per 40 minutes in Big East play. (The conference average is 66.). And starting with tonight's game at Georgetown, Calhoun says he'll put Ryan Boatright and Roscoe Smith in the starting lineup in place of Shabazz Napier and Oriakhi, respectively.
Maybe this is just the change the team has been searching for. (Though it's worth noting that seeking a faster tempo against a traditionally deliberate opponent like the Hoyas may not yield immediate results.) I'll be watching. If the team's new lineup and its new pace result in a smaller turnover margin, you'll be amazed at how different Connecticut looks all the sudden. If not, this team is likely to follow in the footsteps of recent national champions, all of whom were back at school when April rolled around.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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